Dan Willis was an infantryman in the Marine Corps from 2010-2015 after a tumultuous and short career on Wall Street, serving with Fox Company 2/9. He is currently working on his undergraduate degree in economics at Columbus State Community College, and expects to finish at The Ohio State University. Dan humbly serves as RTB Media's Creative Director and Co-founder. Follow Dan on Twitter.
rom the rooftop of a mud house, I watched the Afghan sun croon its evening swan song in the Bari Desert; its last ribbon of light burned a fiery orange as it stretched across the horizon, growing more intense with each step closer to the other side of the world. Our squad was sent north from Marjah to go CAR shopping. I crouched against the sandbags that turned someone’s house into a post; that changed it from a domicile to target, a thing of war. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of Pines cigarettes. Simplicity is bliss.
The following day we patrolled through the desert and occasional adolescent poppy field to conduct a battle damage assessment on a hellfire strike. The air carried the faint smell of sweetness. Another unit had cordoned off the area. Our squad was left to mill about, assessing the damage. Something caught my attention from a few meters away; something resembling a pile. I walked closer to the nondescript heap. As I neared, I began to recognize elements of the contents: Tattered, dusty fabric; hews of pink and red; as I got closer, limbs; fingers; guts -- “stuff” from the inside of a body. I was staring at a pile of what was left of a human being. I instantly remembered scenes of onscreen soldiers puking when confronted with the abrupt cost of war. I smiled. I stared. I thought to myself that is the inside of someone on the outside. It was so absurd as to be funny; so real that it wasn’t real at all.
My squad leader called my name from the corner of a mud hut serving as the Afghan equivalent of an American five-and-dime – Yo, Willis! Come here! He was standing with a handful of Marines from our squad. They too had found a patently horrific scene, for which no one paid “proper” respect. As I walked up to the group, I realized that everyone was wearing the same face as me: half-smiling, half uneasy about being considered a psychopath for not being all that disturbed about what was confronting their senses. Another Afghan was on the ground, writhing in pain and quietly but vehemently protesting his new found fate.
“Willis, this guy’s wounded enemy. You’re going to be his escort on the medevac bird,” blurted my anxious and singularly uncomfortable squad leader. That meant I would get a tax-payer funded ride on a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and live the POG life on Leatherneck for a few days. I laughed inside, not believing my luck.
I replied with an act-natural “got it” to avoid betraying my elation. Be cool, man. Be cool. A few minutes later, the Black Hawk met with the desert floor. I wished I was a pilot, the epitome of cool, free to navigate the sky, instead of a grunt, bound to the earth, my pack, the weight of a combat load. A few of us rolled the poor legless bastard onto a litter and hoisted his unsurprisingly light frame off the ground. As we approached the bird, I tripped over something, almost dropping my end of the stretcher. I turned to identify the culprit. It was a foot, complete with ankle and the first third of a shin – no doubt a missing piece to the reconstruction of the heap of “stuff” I had been admiring, now some 100 meters away. I couldn’t contain my inner sociopath any longer. I laughed so hard I almost dropped the litter again. I laughed so hard that the Major in charge of the bird’s medical staff asked me if I was alright. Oh, I’m fine. It’s just that I almost tripped over some guy’s foot, and all that remains of that guy are little pieces of cartoon horror. What was I supposed to do, cry?!
With I and a dying Taliban fighter in tow, the helicopter rose from the ground with a sense of urgency. I figured the dying man was in such shock from blood loss and trauma that he must have thought he was ascending into his long sought after eternity. I spoke to him in my mind’s eye: This isn’t heaven. Half of you is still on the ground. It’s a fifteen minute flight to Leatherneck, and those tourniquets don’t look too tight. You’re going to die, and I am going to sit right in front of you and watch it happen – only because, right now, you’re the only show in town. See you in hell, you son of a bitch.
As the bird made its final approach to land at Bastion, it was banking so hard that I was staring out the open door on her side and looking directly at the ground some several hundred feet below. The spark of either life or consciousness had long been tamped out of the legless man’s eyes. The Major looked at me and asked, again, if I was alright. Jesus, man, what are you, my girlfriend?!
“I’m good-to-go, sir.” I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up, hoping he’d catch a whiff of the childish belligerence I was offering. Fuck you, sir.
Once on the ground, someone from the hospital led me to a room with TVs and video game consoles; it was empty. There were snacks and cookies and soda. I played a football game on one of the consoles, hit-sticking digital running backs with extreme impunity, and ate chips and drank Rip-its. I thought about my friends, left back there in the desert. I chuckled a little bit and muttered to myself, suckers.
Join the Discussion